Mike Jackson isn’t bashful with either words or actions when it comes to anything related to agriculture. That eagerness helped draw him into Farm Bureau leadership soon after he graduated from Muscatine Community College in 2004.

“The local county board president was trying to get the young farmer program here in Mahaska County going, and they were looking for somebody with a little bit of spit and spunk,” says Jackson, who was recently elected as the new chairman of the Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Advisory Committee.

The county president at the time had some insight into Jackson’s personality. It was his uncle, Tom Jackson of Rose Hill, who had seen Mike’s ambition first-hand. Whether it was modifying the exhaust on a farm pickup to amplify the sound or heading to the field while his dad was away on business as a director for the Iowa Soybean Association, Mike has always tended to tackle projects head-on, Mark Jackson says about his son.

Conversations about agriculture also come naturally, adds Mary Beth, Mike’s wife.

“I have some of my grandfather’s heritage where I don’t know a stranger, I just haven’t met ‘em yet,” Mike says. He jumped into a story about meeting a stranger on a bench at the Iowa State Fair a few years back. When the man learned that Jackson raised pigs, he accused him of being a factory farmer.

“I said, ‘No, I’m a family farmer,’” Jackson recalls. “We sat there and talked for an hour. I’m proud of what I’m doing.”

Those kinds of conversations are more important than ever, he says, noting that raising livestock is often the only route for young farmers to get established in farming.

“We’re labor strong and equity poor,” he says. “God only made so much ground, and the price of that is only going up. My ticket back to the farm was livestock. My father had the foresight to help me build a couple hog buildings, so that allowed me to farm full time.”

Juggling multiple jobs

Now 35 years old, Mike and Mary Beth are juggling multiple jobs on the farm in addition to raising their three children, Arianna, Johnathon and Mack, in a 1908 farmhouse on the family’s century farm near Oskaloosa.

In addition to raising corn and soybeans, Jackson does custom cover crop seeding and is a Latham Seed dealer. Mary Beth handles the books and pitches in anywhere else help is needed on the farm.

Striking a balance between farm work and family life is another challenge all young farmers face, the couple says. Sometimes, Mike says, that means scooping the kids up with their blankets and pajamas to cut soybeans after dark while their mom goes to an evening meeting.

“With modern technology and modern equipment, it makes it easier to throw three kids in the tractor cab with me and go almost all day long,” he says.

Finding time to serve the IFBF young farmer program is also important, the Jacksons say.

“We’ve been going to the conferences for so many years. That’s one of the main reasons that we ran for the committee,” Mike explains. “We wanted to give back to the committee and give back to the young farmer community.”

Lifelong friendships

The IFBF young farmer activities have allowed them to develop many lifelong friendships as well as gain information to improve their farm, Mike notes.

“We always try to meet somebody different,” he says. “It’s easy to go there and you see your friends from last year and hang out and talk to them, but you’ve got to look a little further and meet somebody from a different part of the state.

“Once you start getting past that 10-mile circle from your farm, people start opening up about how they do things and why they do things. You could end up changing something on your farm that could in the end really assist you.”

With Jackson, the topic often turns to cover crops. He’s become a leading voice on the subject, seeding some 2,000 acres of cover crops last fall on his family’s acres as well as custom work.

A leading voice

Jackson has talked about the benefits of cover crops at field days, and when he saw a one-sided news article disparaging cover crops in a farm magazine earlier this year, he reached out to the author to provide balance. Last week, the author wrote a more balanced follow-up piece, including comments from Jackson saying cover crop success boils down to management and education.

He encourages farmers to start on a small scale to find out what works for them. “Everybody has the back 20 that’s got clay in it; it’s no good,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Let me go out there and drill 20 acres of rye on that and let’s just experiment a little bit. It’s not going to cost you a whole lot and the return is going to outweigh the cost.'”

Jackson says he made a few mistakes of his own in the early years of doing cover crops, but has since dialed in his seeding rates and methods to achieve the best return on investment. The erosion control benefits are noticeable immediately, followed by improved soil quality and eventually yield gains, he says. He saw a 10 bushel yield boost in one cornfield with cover crops.

“I could tell you to the row where the cover crop was,” he says. “The first couple of years you gain the erosion control. After that, you start to bank the nutrients.”